Yeats, Scenography and Gordon Craig’s Screens

In the early twentieth century, Yeats was part of a movement comprising of stage designers, scholars, critics, playwrights, actors and producers, which was developing new approaches to stage design, approaches which were moving away from realism towards minimalism (see Kato). The following description summarises the changes that were taking place: “The developing naturalism of European stage practice had brought with it a strong reaction against the representation of exterior or surface reality, and lyric drama, both symbolist and expressionist, developed as a manifestation of poetry were returned to the theatre.”(Taylor p.ix) Form was seen as being as important as the text itself.

As early as March 1903 he outlined the goals of the Irish National Theatre Society as:
1. To present plays that generate intellectual excitement.
2. To make speech even more important than gesture.
3. To simplify acting technique.
4. To simplify both the form and colour of scenery and costume. (Samhain, 1903)
The last point is the critical to our visualisation (hence the bold). Modest or unadorned scenery was an integral part of the Yeatsean approach to dramatic presentations. Eschewing realism in favour of naturalism would allow the audience to engage with his drama. According to Taylor, “Yeats preferred the platform stage of speech and gesture to the proscenium stage of pictures and realistic effects; his ideal of stage design was to suggest an imaginative reality through architectural form and decoration while avoiding a meretricious and vulgar illusionism, and the degree of distortion from naturalistic effect should depend on the particular play to be produced” (Taylor p.8).

Jump forward a decade, to 1910, when for three years from 1910-1913, Yeats collaborated the innovative stage designer Gordon Craig on set of screens to be used as a backdrop for Yeats’s plays in the Abbey Theatre, based on Craig’s patented idea. He was inspired with Craig’s revolutionary ideas to strip back all elements of realism from the stage. His vision is expressed below:
“If we could give our theatre the dignity of a church, of a Greek open air theatre, of an Elizabethan platform stage […] we must have a scene where there is no realism, no objects represented in mass. We shall have made possible once more a nobel, capricious, extravagant, resonant, fantastic art […]” (Yeats quotes in Kato p.107). He saw Craig’s screens as the means with which this “dignity” could be achieved. In 1910 he wrote: “All Summer I have been playing with a little model, where there is a scene capable of endless transformations, of the expression of every mood that does not require a photographic reality” (Yeats quoted in Kato p.107).

Yeats credits Gordon Craig with teaching him a new approach to scenography; the following is an excerpt from a letter to Frank Fay:

Two years ago I was in the same stage about scenery that I am now in about acting. I knew the right principles but I did not know the right practice because I had never see it. I have now learnt a great deal from Gordon Craig.(quoted in Flannery, p.249).

He was so inspired by Craig’s vision and screens that he rewrote a number of his plays to fit in with them. One of these was The Hour-Glass, the subject of our visualisation. Read more about The Hour-Glass in this post.

Bibliography

  • Flannery, James W. W. B. Yeats and the Idea of a Theatre: The Early Abbey Theatre in Theory and Practice. New Haven ; London: Yale University Press, 1976. Print.
  • Kato, Eileen. ‘W.B. Yeats and the Noh’. The Irish Review (1986-) 42 (2010): 104–119. Print.
  • Taylor, Richard. The Drama of W.B. Yeats: Irish Myth and the Japanese Nó. New Haven ; London: Yale U.P, 1977. Print.

 

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